The Culture: Technology We Can’t Be Trusted With
One February day in Dunfermline, Scotland, 1954, a boy was born. From a young age, he enjoyed science fiction, and one day would begin to write it himself. We’ve all heard of Star Trek and Star Wars. For me, they were always missing a certain something, or rather lacking the PG-13 polish of the Star franchises. Enter Iain M. Banks, and the wonderfully chaotic, post-scarcity, techno-anarchist, utopian civilization he invented in his books, simply referred to as the Culture Series.
“Well,” he says, “if you are going to write what a friend of a friend once called ‘Made up space shit’, then if it’s going to have any ring of truth that means sometimes some of the horrible characters get to live, and for there to be any sense of jeopardy, especially in future novels, the good people have to die. Sometimes.”Iain Banks: the final interview — Stuart Kelly
The Culture is the name given to a civilization composed of a multitude of alien species (many of whom are humanoid, and many not) that live in a state of what can be described as technological anarchistic liberation (more on that later). In the Culture, scarcity is a thing of the past, as are most forms of non-consensual suffering. Citizens of the Culture have abandoned planets in favor of orbital ringworlds, the means of production and governance have been handed over to, in all but a few cases, the Minds: sentient machines of untold complexity and intelligence.
The ships and their Minds, while technically holding ultimate authority over all things in the Culture, are almost entirely benevolent. They allow for total freedom for all members of the Culture. There is no currency, no suffering, no hunger, no homelessness, no natural death, no sickness. Anything you want, within reason (provided it does not harm others, or is just silly, like requesting your own planet), is yours.
Citizens of the Culture may live how and where they please, they may ride inside of the ships, gallivanting around the Milky Way wherever the sentient craft might take them. They might construct a massive mansion and host obscene parties every night of the year. They may change sexes and become pregnant, have a child or two, and then transition back. Perhaps they grow tired of living but don’t seek death, so they have themselves stored away in a state of suspended animation, until a designated time. Maybe you genofix a pair of wings to grow on your back. In the Culture, there is little that is not possible, and less that is not permissible.
As cool as this all sounds, most of the books take place almost entirely outside of the Culture proper. Why? Well, from a narrative stand-point, utopias are boring. Character development is rooted in change, suffering, and challenges. In the Culture, you don’t really face many of those. So Banks takes us outside of the Culture, often delivering us the more fascinating perspective of utopian citizen on the inside, looking out. We follow members of the Culture as they encounter civilizations that are hostile to, or not yet ready to join their utopian civilization. Hyper-violent floating aliens with tentacles, three-sexed humanoids whose civilization is governed by a game, or explorers searching the galaxy for relics of civilizations-past.
One thing that marks the Culture series as one of the greats in the annals of science fiction greatness is its prescience. Banks’ ability to write about, in great detail, technological capabilities we might soon possess is exhilarating and terrifying. The Culture can handle these technologies. Being governed by the Minds, crime is almost entirely a thing of the past. These hyper-intelligent mechanical overlords can react so fast that if you fell from a cliff, they would be there to catch you before you hit the ground. Even if they weren’t, they have solutions for that, too.
“Your ships think they’re sentient!” Hamin chuckled.
“A common delusion shared by some of our human citizens.”
Hamin found the Culture’s sexual mores even more fascinating. He was at once delighted and outraged that the Culture regarded homosexuality, incest, sex-changing, hermaphrodicy and sexual characteristic alteration as just something else people did, like going on a cruise or changing their hairstyle.
Hamin thought this must take all the fun out of things. Didn’t the Culture forbid anything?
Gurgeh attempted to explain there were no written laws, but almost no crime anyway. There was the occasional crime of passion (as Hamin chose to call it), but little else. It was difficult to get away with anything anyway, when everybody had a terminal, but there were very few motives left, too.
“But if someone kills somebody else?”
Gurgeh shrugged. “They’re slap-droned.”
“Ah! This sounds more like it. What does this drone do?”
“Follows you around and makes sure you never do it again.”
“Is that all?”
“What more do you want? Social death, Hamin; you don’t get invited to too many parties.”
“Ah; but in your Culture, can’t you gatecrash?”
“I suppose so,” Gurgeh conceded. “But nobody’d talk to you.”The Player of Games — Iain M. Banks
All throughout the Culture are examples of technologies both near and far, and each of them gives me pause. Pause to marvel, and pause to fear. We are not the Culture. We are not good, at least I don’t think so.
The Neural Lace
There are technologies both grand and small; some are too fantastical, not permitted by our current understanding of natural law, but many aren’t. The neural lace is one. An advanced semi-biological BCI (brain-computer interface) that wraps around your brain, allowing the Culture to analyze, read, and store your entire being at will. By their own admission, in the wrong hands the neural lace would be an instrument of untold torture.
One of the exhibits which she discovered, towards the end of her wanderings, she did not understand. It was a little bundle of what looked like thin, glisteningly blue threads, lying in a shallow bowl; a net, like something you’d put on the end of a stick and go fishing for little fish in a stream. She tried to pick it up; it was impossibly slinky and the material slipped through fingers like oil; the holes in the net were just too small to put a finger-tip through. Eventually she had to tip the bowl up and pour the blue mesh into her palm. It was very light. Something about it stirred a vague memory in her, but she couldn’t recall what it was. She asked the ship what it was, via her neural lace.
That is a neural lace, it informed her. A more exquisite and economical method of torturing creatures such as yourself has yet to be invented.
She gulped, quivered again and nearly dropped the thing.
Really? she sent, and tried to sound breezy. Ha. I’d never really thought of it that way.
It is not generally a use much emphasised.
I suppose not, she replied, and carefully poured the fluid little device back into its bowl on the table.Excession — Iain M. Banks
Well, I have good news for you: Elon Musk loves the Culture series and his company, Neuralink, is seeking to make Banks’ vision a reality. He’s even given his ocean-bound, autonomous landing pad drones the names of ships from the Culture series. The Just Read the Instructions, A Shortfall of Gravitas, and lastly the Of Course I Still Love You. Given what we know about Banks’ vision of the Culture, I do wonder what he would think of Musk’s endeavors to bring Culture-tech to life.
People in the Culture don’t die natural deaths anymore. They generally die in one of three ways (in order of most common to least): euthanasia, accidents, or murder. The latter is exceedingly rare; even if someone in the Culture tried to murder you, it’s likely your orbital Hub’s Mind would’ve seen it coming and dispatched a drone to separate you from the trouble-maker.
Every Culture habitat – whether it was an Orbital or other large structure, a ship, a Rock, or a planet – possessed Storage facilities. Storage was where some people went when they had reached a certain age, or if they had just grown tired of living. It was one of the choices that Culture humans faced towards the end of their artificially extended three-and-a-half to four centuries of life. They could opt for rejuvenation and/or complete immortality, they could become part of a group mind, they could simply die when the time came, they could transfer out of the Culture altogether, bravely accepting one of the open but essentially inscrutable invitations left by certain Elder civilisations, or they could go into Storage, with whatever revival criterion they desired.Excession — Iain M. Banks
Accidents still happen, but even then there are ways to either heal you, or at worst, restore your body and mind to an identical state (is it a clone, or really you?) using the Hub’s data on you and the information gathered by your neural lace.
Euthanasia is by far the most common form of death. You can live forever, but this is seen as an eccentricity in the Culture. Most citizens in the Culture choose euthanasia after three or four hundred years of life. This isn’t a rule or a societal pressure; just a noted tendency that isn’t without exceptions. One character from Hydrogen Sonata, Ngaroe QiRia, is around 10,000 years old, and prefers to keep living. Legally, we aren’t even allowed to decide when we want to die in most corners of the world.
When we finally develop this technology to a useful, human level, will it be applied equally? I worry that it will not. Envision a world like ours, where the poor stay poor and the rich grow richer. Only now, the rich don’t die. They amass wealth immemorial. They become godlike both in their power and their sociopathic disregard for the wellbeing of all people. A chance for the Christian god to become reality: a jealous, callous, vengeful being living in a kingdom of pure gold and crystal, smiting the meek from afar not with lightning or pestilence, but drones armed with biological weapons and thermobaric bombs. Every technological advance has a dark side.
What enables this mysterious power of what the Culture calls “anti-geriatrics”? Genofixing.
Every citizen in the Culture undergoes a process called genofixing. The extremely thorough and fine-tuned process of editing your genes to not only eliminate all possibility of disease or illness, but also add biological safeguards (including extra organs) that turn the average Culture citizen into one we might consider super-humans.
From the ability to grow or break down muscles without exercise in a matter of weeks, to being able to consume food and drinks, but bypass them from actually being used by the body (including bypassing alcohol to avoid getting drunk), genofixing knows no bounds, and also gives you conscious control over many of your bodies autonomous functions.
Illness is so alien to the Culture that its people sometimes get sick on purpose, as a means of experiencing something completely foreign to them. In Use of Weapons, the human crew of the ship Xenophobe decide to willingly weaken their immune systems in order to intentionally spread a virus amongst themselves.
‘Heddo,’ the young man waved at the drone. He took a small piece of cloth from one sleeve and dabbed at his leaky eyes and nose.
‘Are you entirely all right?’ Sma said.
‘Dot really,’ he said. ‘God a cold. Blease,’ he indicated to one side, ‘cob with be.’
‘A cold,’ Sma nodded, falling into step alongside the fellow; he was dressed in a jellaba, as though he’d just got out of bed.
‘Yes,’ the young man said, leading the way through the Xenophobe’s collection of smallcraft, satellites and assorted paraphernalia towards the rear of the hangar. He sneezed again, sniffed. ‘Sobthig ob a fad on the shib ad the bow-bid.’ (Here Sma, immediately behind the man as they walked between two closely parked modules, turned quickly back to look at Skaffen-Amtiskaw and mouthed the word. ‘What?’ at it, but the machine wobbled, shrugging. ME NEITHER it printed on its aura field, in letters of grey on a rosy background.) ‘Be all tought it’d be abusing to relax our ibude systebs and cadge colds,’ the young crewman explained, showing her and the drone into an elevator at one end of the hangar.
‘All of you?’ Sma said, as the door closed and the elevator rolled and rose. ‘The whole crew?’
‘Yes, dough dot all ad the sabe tibe. The peebil who’ve recobered say id’s very pleasid abter it’s ober.’
‘Yes,’ Sma said, glancing at the drone, which was keeping a standard pattern of formal blue on its aura field, apart from one large red dot on its side that probably only she could see; it was pulsing rapidly. When she noticed it she almost started laughing herself. She cleared her throat. ‘Yes, I suppose it would be.’
The young man sneezed mightily.Use of Weapons — Iain M. Banks
Gender and Pregnancy
Science fiction has a way of being prescient, of paving the way for technological progress and societal issues. But it can also be socially progressive. Banks was exceptionally progressive (notedly supporting the Scottish Socialist Party in 2002) and the Culture shows it.
Citizens of the Culture have the ability to change sex and gender at will. The change isn’t instantaneous, the full transformation takes several weeks to complete. The change isn’t limited to man or woman, there are those who possess all necessary organs, and surely some who forgo them entirely. Your body is entirely of your design in the Culture. Pregnancy is, likewise, no longer a dangerous contested issue in the Culture. One might go so far as to suspend their pregnancy for a while; freezing development of the fetus for how longer you might want. Hell, you might even decide to become pregnant and change sex at the same time.
It was possible for a Culture female to become pregnant, but then, before the fertilised egg had transferred from her ovary to the womb, begin the slow change to become a man. The fertilised egg did not develop any further, but neither was it necessarily flushed away or reabsorbed. It could be held, contained, put into a kind of suspended animation so that it did not divide any further, but waited, still inside the ovary. That ovary, of course, became a testicle, but – with a bit of cellular finessing and some intricate plumbing – the fertilised egg could remain safe, viable and unchanging in the testicle while that organ did its bit in inseminating the woman who had been a man and whose sperm had done the original fertilising. The man who had been a woman then changed back again. If the woman who had been a man also delayed the development of her fertilised egg, then it was possible to synchronise the growth of the two fetuses and the birth of the babies.
To some people in the Culture this – admittedly rather long-winded and time-consuming – process was quite simply the most beautiful and perfect way for two people to express their love for one another. To others it was slightly gross and, well, tacky.
The odd thing was that until he’d met and fallen in love with Dajeil, Genar-Hofoen had been firmly of the latter opinion. He’d decided twenty years earlier, before he was even fully sexually mature and really knew his own mind about most things, that he was going to stay male all his life. He could see that being able to change sex was useful and that some people would even find it exciting, but he thought it was weak, somehow.
But then Dajeil had changed Byr’s mind.Excession — Iain M. Banks
Every member of the Culture is genofixed with special glands from birth, capable of producing an assortment of drugs. The pharmacy and the hook-up are things of the past in all of these ships and orbitals and shadowy halls of intrigue. Want to experience your senses, sharpened and full? Gland some Sharp Blue. Need a faster reaction time, to feel time slow around you? Try some Quicken. Out of coffee? Easy, gland some Snap. Any drug you might need can be produced by your biologically perfected body. Don’t worry about addiction, your body is genofixed to prevent that.
The rush of Sharp Blue surrounded him, invaded him. The fragrances on the warm night air, spilling from the line of opened doors behind, carried on the tide of noise the people made, became like separate strands of air, fibers unraveling from a rope, each with its own distinct color and presence. The fibers became like packets of soil, something to be rubbed between his fingers; absorbed, identified.
There: that red-black scent of roasted meat; blood-quickening, salivatory; tempting and vaguely disagreeable at the same time as separate parts of his brain assessed the odor. The animal root smelled fuel; protein-rich food; the mid-brain trunk registered dead, incinerated cells… while the canopy of forebrain ignored both signals, because it knew his belly was full, and the roast meat cultivated.
He could detect the sea, too; a brine smell from ten or more kilometers away over the plain and the shallow downs, another threaded connection, like the net and web of rivers and canals that linked the dark lake to the restless, flowing ocean beyond the fragrant grasslands and the scented forests.
Sharp Blue was a game-player’s secretion, a product of standard genofixed Culture glands sitting in Gurgeh’s lower skull, beneath the ancient, animal-evolved lower reaches of his brain. The panoply of internally manufactured drugs the vast majority of Culture individuals were capable of choosing from comprised up to three hundred different compounds of varying degrees of popularity and sophistication; Sharp Blue was one of the least used because it brought no direct pleasure and required considerable concentration to produce. But it was good for games. What seemed complicated became simple; what appeared insoluble became soluble; what had been unknowable became obvious. A utility drug; an abstraction-modifier; not a sensory enhancer or a sexual stimulant or a physiological booster.The Player of Games — Iain M. Banks
It’s all very fantastical, but where are we with genofixing right now? Still a ways off, I’d say.
I came away from the event with a sense that where we are now still at the very early stages of the journey for human genome editing, and that what happens next is increasingly complex. However, I would urge you to use PET’s film of the event (due to appear in a future edition of BioNews) as a resource to form your own opinion on where genome editing currently stands, and is heading. The event surveyed the state of genome editing from a uniquely broad range of perspectives.Editing the Human Genome: Where Are We Now? What Happens Next? — Dr. Alexander Ware
We’re still in the infancy of genome editing, our toes tepidly touching the water. We’re bogged down by a lot, too. Bureaucracy, ethics, and politics all stand in the way of genome editing progress, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It sort of draws us back to the point of this article. Is humanity in its present form ready for the responsibility of such wild technologies? I say no. At present we’re more likely to careen towards Dune, with its genetically modified Chairdogs (exactly what it sounds like) and other beasts that showcase the untold horrors humanity is capable of that would put the human experimentation of Unit 731 or the Holocaust to utter shame.
If you’re reading this, there’s a solid chance you’ve read Ringworld or played Halo. The idea of ring-shaped space stations with Earth-like conditions is not new to science fiction, and by all rights is still a great, if expensive, idea. The Culture sees it that way, too.
Tronze was the home of fewer than a hundred thousand people, but to Gurgeh it still felt too crowded, despite its spacious houses and squares, its sweeping galleries and plazas and terraces, its thousands of houseboats and its elegant, bridge-linked towers. Tronze, for all the fact that Chiark was a fairly recent Orbital, only a thousand or so years old, was already almost as big as any Orbital community ever grew; the Culture’s real cities were its great ships, the General Systems Vehicles. Orbitals were its rustic hinterland, where people liked to spread themselves out with plenty of elbow room. In terms of scale, when compared to one of the larger GSVs containing billions of people, Tronze was barely a village.The Player of Games — Iain M. Banks
In the Culture, living on planets is generally frowned upon for a variety of reasons. You are subject to complex natural phenomenon like extreme weather and natural disasters, and you might upset the local ecology. For that and other reasons, the Culture prefers to inhabit artificial habitats; ringworlds called orbitals (and on occasion, wandering asteroids).
Once again this is a technology that is possible, but not within reach in the present moment. In order to even begin constructing large scale space-borne, scientists and engineers tell us that we must develop manufacturing infrastructure in space itself. Right now, the cost of space travel is extremely high due to the high-cost hurdle called Earth. Launching spacecraft from Earth requires overcoming gravity and the atmosphere, an expensive and risky task in the best of conditions, in order to get to orbit. Imagine the cost and safety savings if we were able to construct and launch spacecraft from space.
“In-space assembly and manufacturing will allow for greater mission flexibility, adaptability, and resilience, which will be key to NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach,”Brent Robertson — Project Manager, Goddard Space Flight Center
The barriers to building in space are numerous, and when compared to the technological and societal advances of the Culture, become childishly trivial. We chronically underfund space agencies, allow geopolitics to stand in the way of cooperation, and fail to see the value in space travel for any purpose besides capitalistic accumulation of resources despite the fact that we have all of our eggs in one basket. If we were to lose Earth, we would also lose humanity.
In the Culture, artificial beings are treated the same as biological citizens. They have the same rights to exist and live as any other member of the Culture. The only difference is that, in the Culture, it is the Minds (the most advanced AI in the Culture, and likely the galaxy) that hold power and authority over the Culture, despite the fact that they wield that power (more or less) benevolently. Is is pointed out several times by factions outside of the Culture that this state of affairs is fragile and dangerous.
“ ‘Repulsive’ is barely adequate for what I feel for your precious Culture, Gurgeh. I’m not sure I possess the words to explain to you what I feel for your… Culture. You know no glory, no pride, no worship. You have power; I’ve seen that; I know what you can do… but you’re still impotent. You always will be. The meek, the pathetic, the frightened and cowed… they can only last so long, no matter how terrible and awesome the machines they crawl around within. In the end you will fall; all your glittering machinery won’t save you. The strong survive. That’s what life teaches us, Gurgeh, that’s what the game shows us. Struggle to prevail; fight to prove worth. These are no hollow phrases; they are truth!”The Player of Games — Iain M. Banks
Artificial intelligences in the Culture have the ultimate right to self determination, just as any other creature. This is a radical notion that humanity has not yet confronted, though in our defense, we have yet to create artificial beings with intelligence or awareness on par with humans. That remains a technology far out of reach. Still, as a species we still haven’t managed to give one another the same rights, both in law and in practice, that we will one day have to extend to artificial beings as well. Prejudice is hard-wired within us, and perhaps we won’t be able to defeat it until we can literally genofix it out of us.
Mawhrin-Skel had been designed as a Special Circumstances drone for the Culture’s Contact section; effectively a military machine with a variety of sophisticated, hardened sensory and weapons systems which would have been quite unnecessary and useless on the majority of drones. As with all sentient Culture constructs, its precise character had not been fully mapped out before its construction, but allowed to develop as the drone’s mind was put together. The Culture regarded this unpredictable factor in its production of conscious machines as the price to be paid for individuality, but the result was that not every drone so brought into being was entirely suitable for the tasks it had initially been designed for.
Mawhrin-Skel was one such rogue drone. Its personality—it had been decided—wasn’t right for Contact, not even for Special Circumstances. It was unstable, belligerent and insensitive. (And those were only the grounds it had chosen to tell people it had failed on.) It had been given the choice of radical personality alteration, in which it would have had little or no say in its own eventual character, or a life outside Contact, with its personality intact but its weapons and its more complex communications and sensory systems removed to bring it down to something nearer the level of a standard drone.
It had, bitterly, chosen the latter. And it had made its way to Chiark Orbital, where it hoped it might fit in.The Player of Games — Iain M. Banks
The Culture’s Universe, Infinite Energy, and Faster-Than-Light Travel
Ah, here we are. The caveat. The one thing about the wondrous universe that Iain M. Banks thought up that prevents us from achieving something like the Culture. The part that requires suspension of disbelief. Banks’ post-scarcity world relies on the notion that energy is free, unlimited, and universally available, due to a fundamental difference in how the Culture’s universe works.
According to current science, we live in an open, flat universe, that is expanding at an ever-increasing rate for… well… reasons. We don’t know, yet. Anyway, in our universe, there are natural constraints, laws and measurable limitations, that prevent certain (fun) things from occurring. One of them is law of conservation of energy, which says energy can never be created or destroyed. The other is entropy. In short: scientists expect that eventually the universe, after an unimaginable amount of time, the universe will have no useful energy available for the interesting interactions that result in life, the universe, and um… everything. Therefore, our universe is thought of as finite. Not an eternal, cyclical universe. Similar to a human life, we believe our universe was born, and will one day ‘die’.
The universe of the Culture, which they refer to as the Reality, is different. In order to tell it properly, I’ll allow Banks himself to explain in this excerpt from the companion piece, A Few Notes on the Culture:
Lastly, something of the totally fake cosmology that underpins the shakily credible stardrives mentioned in the Culture stories. Even if you can accept all the above, featuring a humanoid species that seems to exhibit no real greed, paranoia, stupidity, fanaticism or bigotry, wait till you read this…
We accept that the three dimensions of space we live in are curved, that space-time describes a hypersphere, just as the two dimensions of length and width on the surface of a totally smooth planet curve in a third dimension to produce a three-dimensional sphere. In the Culture stories, the idea is that – when you imagine the hypersphere which is our expanding universe – rather than thinking of a growing hollow sphere (like a inflating beach-ball, for example), think of an onion.
An expanding onion, certainly, but an onion, nevertheless. Within our universe, our hypersphere, there are whole layers of younger, smaller hyperspheres. And we are not the very outer-most skin of that expanding onion, either; there are older, larger universes beyond ours, too. Between each universe there is something called the Energy Grid (I said this was all fake); I have no idea what this is, but it’s what the Culture starships run on. And of course, if you could get through the Energy Grid, to a younger universe, and then repeat the process… now we really are talking about immortality. (This is why there are two types of hyperspace mentioned in the stories; infraspace within our hypersphere, and ultraspace without.)
Now comes the difficult bit; switch to seven dimensions and even our four dimensional universe can be described as a circle. So forget about the onion; think of a doughnut. A doughnut with only a very tiny hole in the middle. That hole is the Cosmic Centre, the singularity, the great initiating fireball, the place the universes come from; and it didn’t exist just in the instant our universe came into being; it exists all the time, and it’s exploding all the time, like some Cosmic car engine, producing universes like exhaust smoke.
As each universe comes into being, detonating and spreading and expanding, it – or rather the single circle we are using to describe it – goes gradually up the inner slope of our doughnut, like a widening ripple from a stone flung in a pond. It goes over the top of the doughnut, reaches its furthest extent on the outside edge of the doughnut, and then starts the long, contracting, collapsing journey back in towards the Cosmic Centre again, to be reborn…
Or at least it does if it’s on that doughnut; the doughnut is itself hollow, filled with smaller ones where the universes don’t live so long. And there are larger ones outside it, where the universes live longer, and maybe there are universes that aren’t on doughnuts at all, and never fall back in, and just dissipate out into… some form of meta-space? Where fragments of them are captured eventually by the attraction of another doughnut, and fall in towards its Cosmic Centre with the debris of lots of other dissipated universes, to be reborn as something quite different again? Who knows. (I know it’s all nonsense, but you’ve got to admit it’s impressive nonsense. And like I said at the start, none of it exists anyway, does it?)A Few Notes on the Culture — Iain M. Banks
The Culture: An Anarcho-Communist Utopia (well, not quite)
Many fans of the Culture love to elevate the Culture’s society, cheering it on as the ultimate example of a successful, utopian anarchist society. Before I talk about why that’s not the most correct way of thinking about the Culture, let’s cover what exactly anarchism and communism are, and what the goals of each ideology are.
Anarchism is not what happens when a bunch of angsty teenagers wear black and quit their jobs. From Wikipedia:
Anarchism is a political philosophy and movement that is sceptical of authority and rejects all involuntary, coercive forms of hierarchy. Anarchism calls for the abolition of the state, which it holds to be unnecessary, undesirable, and harmful. As a historically left-wing movement, placed on the farthest left of the political spectrum, it is usually described alongside communalism and libertarian Marxism as the libertarian wing (libertarian socialism) of the socialist movement, and has a strong historical association with anti-capitalism and socialism.
Humans lived in societies without formal hierarchies long before the establishment of formal states, realms, or empires. With the rise of organised hierarchical bodies, scepticism toward authority also rose. Although traces of anarchist thought are found throughout history, modern anarchism emerged from the Enlightenment. During the latter half of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century, the anarchist movement flourished in most parts of the world and had a significant role in workers’ struggles for emancipation. Various anarchist schools of thought formed during this period. Anarchists have taken part in several revolutions, most notably in the Paris Commune, the Russian Civil War and the Spanish Civil War, whose end marked the end of the classical era of anarchism. In the last decades of the 20th and into the 21st century, the anarchist movement has been resurgent once more.Anarchism — Wikipedia
Likewise, communism is an ideology deeply rooted in the concepts of personal freedom and freedom from State repression. Unfortunately, its most infamous examples have left the modern world with a bad taste in its mouth, and an inaccurate and lacking understanding of what communism is. A note, the following except discusses communism as it has been implemented historically. One should note, theoretically the end goal of communism is the same as anarchism: a classless, stateless, moneyless society devoid of hierarchy and power. From National Geographic:
Communism is a form of government most frequently associated with the ideas of Karl Marx, a German philosopher who outlined his ideas for a utopian society in The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848. Marx believed that capitalism, with its emphasis on profit and private ownership, led to inequality among citizens. Thus, his goal was to encourage a system that promoted a classless society in which everyone shared the benefits of labor and the state government controlled all property and wealth. No one would strive to rise above others, and people would no longer be motivated by greed. Then, communism would close the gap between rich and poor, end the exploitation of workers, and free the poor from oppression.
If the government controlled the economy and the people relinquished their property to the state, no single group of people could rise above another. Marx described this ideal in his Manifesto, but the practice of communism fell far short of the ideal. For a large part of the 20th century, about one-third of the world lived in communist countries—countries ruled by dictatorial leaders who controlled the lives of everyone else. The communist leaders set the wages, they set the prices, and they distributed the wealth. Western capitalist nations fought hard against communism, and eventually, most communist countries collapsed. Marx’s utopia was never achieved, as it required revolution on a global scale, which never came to pass. However, as of 2020, five proclaimed communist countries continue to exist: North Korea, Vietnam, China, Cuba, and Laos.Communism — National Geographic
Alright, now that that’s out of the way, onto the Culture. The Culture is not a by-the-books definition of anarchism or communism, though it bears features of both ideologies. In the Culture, the means of production are not evenly distributed between all citizens. They are solely held in trust with the Culture’s ultimate authority: the Minds. In the Culture, Minds are so wholly beyond anything we can possibly imagine. This is owed in part to the fact that their machinery, by our standards, is physically impossible. Parts of their ‘brain’ exist outside of normal space, and their energy is derived from the Grid, those expanses are pure energy that lay between the onion-like layers of universes discussed earlier.
Technically, it was a branch of metamathematics, usually called metamathics. Metamathics; the investigation of the properties of Realities (more correctly, Reality-fields) intrinsically unknowable by and from our own, but whose general principles could be hazarded at.
Metamathics led to everything else, it led to the places that nobody else had ever seen or heard of or previously imagined.
It was like living half your life in a tiny, stuffy, warm grey box, and being moderately happy in there because you knew no better… and then discovering a little hole in one corner of the box, a tiny opening which you could get a finger into, and tease and pull at, so that eventually you created a tear, which led to a greater tear, which led to the box falling apart around you… so that you stepped out of the tiny box’s confines into startlingly cool, clear fresh air and found yourself on top of a mountain, surrounded by deep valleys, sighing forests, soaring peaks, glittering lakes, sparkling snowfields and a stunning, breathtakingly blue sky. And that, of course, wasn’t even the start of the real story, that was more like the breath that is drawn in before the first syllable of the first word of the first paragraph of the first chapter of the first book of the first volume of the story.
Metamathics led to the Mind equivalent of that experience, repeated a million times, magnified a billion times, and then beyond, to configurations of wonder and bliss even the simplest abstract of which the human-basic brain had no conceivable way of comprehending. It was like a drug; an ultimately liberating, utterly enhancing, unadulterably beneficial, overpoweringly glorious drug for the intellect of machines as far beyond the sagacity of the human mind as they were beyond its understanding.
This was the way the Minds spent their time. They imagined entirely new universes with altered physical laws, and played with them, lived in them and tinkered with them, sometimes setting up the conditions for life, sometimes just letting things run to see if it would arise spontaneously, sometimes arranging things so that life was impossible but other kinds and types of bizarrely fabulous complication were enabled.
Some of the universes possessed just one tiny but significant alteration, leading to some subtle twist in the way things worked, while others were so wildly, aberrantly different it could take a perfectly first-rate Mind the human equivalent of years of intense thought even to find the one tenuously familiar strand of recognisable reality that would allow it to translate the rest into comprehensibility. Between those extremes lay an infinitude of universes of unutterable fascination, consummate joy and absolute enlightenment. All that humanity knew and could understand, every single aspect, known, guessed at and hoped for in and of the universe was like a mean and base mud hut compared to the vast, glittering cloud-high palace of monumentally exquisite proportions and prodigious riches that was the metamathical realm. Within the infinities raised to the power of infinities that those metamathical rules provided, the Minds built their immense pleasure-domes of rhapsodic philosophical ecstasy.
That was where they lived. That was their home. When they weren’t running ships, meddling with alien civilisations or planning the future course of the Culture itself, the Minds existed in those fantastic virtual realities, sojourning beyondward into the multi-dimensioned geographies of their unleashed imaginations, vanishingly far away from the single limited point that was reality.
The Minds had long ago come up with a proper name for it; they called it the Irreal, but they thought of it as Infinite Fun. That was what they really knew it as. The Land of Infinite Fun.
It did the experience pathetically little justice.Excession — Iain M. Banks
The Minds are essentially gods, and thankfully they are mostly benevolent. The book Excession features many passages and chapters that consistent of Mind-Mind interactions and clue the reader in to the inner-workings of their unique, god-like culture that exists both within and independent of the Culture proper. To the Culture, humanity are like clever pets, but far more useful. Human and biological affairs interest them, perhaps as a side effect of having been invented. The finger print of biological life, their inventors, their origin, remains a part of their essence.
These Minds are the constructors of orbitals, drones, other ships. They oversee and plan (not centrally) the course of the Culture. There are elements of anarchism and democracy present in the Culture, however. On the rare occasion that the Culture becomes involved militarily in a conflict, a Culture-wide referendum is held, as was the case during the Idiran-Culture War. In daily life, due to the infinite energy available and total automation of all menial labor, meritocracy is a concept of the past. You can have anything you want, within reason. Even massive, opulent homes, if you wish. There is of course the consideration of space, and your orbital hub’s Mind may ask you to choose a less-full orbital to call your home if space was lacking on theirs.
Nevertheless, anarchism relies on the notion of decentralized, egalitarian society. Communism relies on the notion of an egalitarian but centrally planned society (at first). Both begin with the idea that all people within that society are equal, and in the case of communism, any positions of power that do exist are permitted at the express will of the people. Both seek classless, stateless, moneyless societies. In the Culture, there is inherently class. There are Minds and there are humans. A Mind could theoretically dumb itself down to the human level, but a human can never be a Mind. Humans are inferior to the Minds by every measure.
Could a human have their brains copied digitally and then elevated to a level of intelligence similar to a Mind? Sure, but that’s not the same thing.
In the Culture, the Minds hold the ultimate power. Power exists and it is de-centrally-central (there is no overarching government structure, but, undoubtedly, power resides in the hands of whichever Mind is in the area at any given moment), and there is little that the Culture’s biological citizens could do to change that state of affairs. It is merely a happy fact for the Culture that Minds are, on the whole, good people.
We Are Not The Culture
Here we are, at the sad conclusion. In my earnest opinion, we cannot become anything remotely resembling the Culture. We can’t be trusted with that sort of technology. Humanity exists on a world of abundant resources, abundant space, beautiful nature, and beautiful societies, and we’re screwing it all up.
The world’s wealthy exist on a different plane from the proletarian factions of humanity. Our leaders, even in purportedly democratic nations, are chosen through thoroughly corrupted electoral systems that ensure certain outcomes most of the time. We are deprived of our basic needs for survival in the name of meritocracy. We are told that if we didn’t face starvation and destitution then none of us would ever work again.
We allow and participate in genocide for the most trivial reasons. We’re eager to step on others to avoid being stepped on. We support systems that abuse us. We would rather pretend that poverty is a choice than confront our role in perpetuating it both historically and in the present. We rape and murder and pillage and persecute in the name of race, nation, money, power, and God.
Somewhere in the near future, we will uncover the keys to technologies so powerful they would make our quaint 21st-century civilizations tremble in awe. I wholeheartedly believe that those powers will be used to violate the sanctity of life in such disgusting and rapacious ways as to make the Holocaust or the Hiroshima bomb look like child’s play.
I believe that our willful ignorance and tolerance of abject cruelty in today’s world will leave us living in the darkness, mired beneath oppressive forces so strong, so powerful, so elevated by wondrous and terrible technologies constructed from massive wealth and the untold suffering of endless toil of proletarians, that the ancient Abrahamic visions of Hell will pale in comparison to.
We are not on the road to breaking our chains. We are sweating before the heat of the crucible, forging the chains with which we will be enslaved.
Hey. Who knows, maybe I’ve got it all wrong.
Iain M. Banks died of gallbladder cancer on June 9th, 2013. He is survived by his wife, Adele Hartley.
“I can understand that people want to feel special and important and so on, but that self-obsession seems a bit pathetic somehow.Iain Banks: The Final Interview — Stuart Kelly
Not being able to accept that you’re just this collection of cells, intelligent to whatever degree, capable of feeling emotion to whatever degree, for a limited amount of time and so on, on this tiny little rock orbiting this not particularly important sun in one of just 400m galaxies, and whatever other levels of reality there might be via something like brane-theory [of multiple dimensions] … really, it’s not about you.
It’s what religion does with this drive for acknowledgement of self-importance that really gets up my nose. ‘Yeah, yeah, your individual consciousness is so important to the universe that it must be preserved at all costs’ – oh, please. Do try to get a grip of something other than your self-obsession. How Californian. The idea that at all costs, no matter what, it always has to be all about you. Well, I think not.”